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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/23/2010

Schools should teach religion (now more than ever)

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Khyati Y. Joshi, an associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and the author of "New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, & Ethnicity in Indian America" (Rutgers U. Press, 2006).

By Khyati Y. Joshi
The 2010 school year began at a moment when religion was front and center in American popular dialogue. Debates about a proposed Muslim community center at Cordoba House in New York coincided with the observance of the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks; the celebration of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year; Eid ul’Fitr, the festival ending the holy month of Ramadan;and Ganesh Chaturthi, during which 1.5 million Hindus in the United States celebrate the birthday of the Hindu god Ganesh.

Regrettably, the one place those issues and events were least likely to be discussed was in American schools. This is because learning about religion, understanding religious faiths and the relationships between faith and culture is almost completely absent from our nation’s public schools.

More than ever before, Americans need to be able to have informed, intelligent discussions about religion and religious pluralism.

Since 1965, when immigration reforms opened America’s doors for the first time in generations to immigrants from beyond Europe, the United States has seen an unprecedented flourishing of religious diversity. America has been religiously diverse since the Colonial Era, but more groups are building communities and houses of worship today than ever before.

Contemporary classrooms, workplaces, and the very “public square” of American social and political dialogue are as religiously diverse as they have ever been, and growing more so.

However, this increasing diversity has not been matched by the education needed to appreciate it or to interact effectively with others. Instead, we are stymied by misinformation about the tenets of other religions.

As an educator who teaches teachers and observes the contemporary K-12 classroom, I have seen that the academic study of religion is absent. The reason for its absence is that public schools have misinterpreted and over-applied the idea of “separation of church and state”—a phrase which appears in neither the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. When educators and school administrators misunderstand the First Amendment, they fail our kids.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government, including public schools, from having rules or policies that favor one religion over another, or advocate religion over irreligion. But it contains no restriction on the study of religion. More simply put, schools may not preach, but they may, and should, teach.

If teachers can understand that distinction, they can acknowledge and incorporate religion appropriately. Christianity is already present in schools, from the calendar to the religious identity of most teachers, who—as Christians—may know and use Biblical metaphors and stories (“Good Samaritan” or “turn the other cheek”) without realizing they exclude some students.

It’s time both to acknowledge Christianity’s role in schools and society, and to incorporate other religions. Doing so will allow schools to offer students a more comprehensive and meaningful understanding of subjects from world history and literature to biology and—yes—current events.

Acknowledging and incorporating religion in schools also enables teachers to appreciate their students as whole people, by acknowledging that religion is part of the identity of many students, including Christians.

To realize the potential of this moment, teachers and administrators must do two things: First, develop an understanding of the First Amendment, and the broad leeway it offers them to incorporate the teaching of religious topics into the curriculum. And, second, develop a basic understanding of the religions present in their own classrooms.

Teachers needn’t become religious scholars. Rather, they need to know some basic terminology, such as what houses of worship are called and the names of major holidays. This avoids alienating students with question like, “What is your church?” or “When is your Christmas?” And they need to develop the wise habit of questioning their own assumptions about other faiths and communities.

The call I’m issuing is as uniquely American as our diversity. The framers began an amazing experiment 234 years ago. The work of enriching America by adapting to its new religious pluralism is our piece of the charge to create “a more perfect union.”

There is no more important place or time to provide young Americans with these tools for 21st century society. Young people are ripe to learn, and find themselves part of friendships that didn’t exist a generation ago: friendships among Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Baha’i, and other classmates of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

America will be stronger if all of us can strengthen those ties—and be better equipped to understand the next “Ground Zero Mosque” debate, when it occurs.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 23, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Curriculum, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  establishment clause, first amendment, lausreligion in schoreligin in, religion and school, separation of church and state, teaching religion  
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While I approve of what the writer is trying to say.


No matter how you want to phrase it, or say that schools should teach the basics of religion, the truth is it always becomes support for the majority religion in the area or the school.

Public schools are NOT places where students should be forced to follow a particular religion, and as soon as you open that door, even a little bit, you will have schools ramming their religion down all student's throats.

Watch the news, and see how Muslims (to use the most obvious example) are being treated right now. Do you really think that some of folks claiming Islam is evil aren't teachers, and won't bring that into the classroom? Do you really think that a strongly religious teacher of any religion isn't going to take the opportunity to "sell" their religion?

Keep religion out of the public schools. Period.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | September 23, 2010 6:59 AM | Report abuse

Is religion not included in courses on world history in other parts of the country? I teach middle school in the Southeastern U.S., and we teach about the 5 major world religions(Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) in addition to the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. If nothing else, students should be exposed to this material through a Social Studies class, because religion plays a huge role in what has happened in past, what's going on today, and will occur. If they are ignorant of all religions but their own, it is difficult to understand another person's perspective. I make it a point to tell my students they don't have to agree w/ what they learn about the other religions, but it they do need to try and look at world events from the other perspectives. Also, teachers who are responsible for teaching this material MUST be educated about it themselves! Many who teach about religions have never read the Rig Vedas, the Quran, or any other holy books. Shouldn't we as teachers strive to constantly learn more about society and the world and share that knowledge with others?

Posted by: laurab803 | September 23, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

California social studies curriculum for middle schools include:
6th grade - Pagan (various ancient), Buddhism, Hinduism
7th grade - Islam, Chrisitianity (including the great schism), Judaism
8th - separation of church and state -deists.

Posted by: Care1 | September 23, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

One of the first things I did as a history teacher after the 9/11 attacks was implement a comparative religion unit. My students were curious and engaged by the topic and it helped them understand there's as much diversity within religions as across them. Clearly teachers need to be hyper-vigilant about the dominant religion in their community and make sure it is considered in the same objective way as the religions that are foreign to so many students' personal experiences.

Posted by: gideon4ed | September 23, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

It's already in the standards, and should not be treated as special.

Religion is poisonous.

Posted by: tfteacher | September 23, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with the main thrust of the article - that students should be exposed to academic study of religion - the author exhibits some sloppy thinking. She notes that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the constitution. Neither, however, do "separation of powers" or "checks and balances," yet these ideas are clearly contained within the constitution. Likewise, separation of church and state is demanded by the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as explained elsewhere by Jefferson and Madison.

Ms. Joshi suggests that opposition to academic religion classes will come from strict separationists. This idea does not jibe with my experience. I have found that comparative religion courses are more likely to be opposed by community members who are worried that their own religion will not be taught "correctly," generally meaning that the majority religion of the community will not be taught as truth. This can be seen in the battle over which Bible curriculum should be used in schools which offer a course on the Bible as literature. Fundamentalists insist upon using the NCBCPS curriculum, which is a specifically protestant evangelical curriculum in favor of the more academic perspective offered by the Bible Literacy Project.

Furthermore, I am mystified as to what contribution Ms. Joshi thinks the study of religion will have toward our understanding of biology.

Posted by: djphipps | September 23, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

In Cali, as Care1 pointed out, the teaching of the existence and history of religion is in the standards for the middle school grades. This is from a historical point of view. To avoid teaching these the history is not adequately teaching these kids. I have never been a fan of the Muslims and this goes back throughout most of my life. However, to better understand these religions is better than to be ignorant of them. I'm not advocating participating in there "services" or anything like that, but some basic knowledge.

Wyrm1 is gone to the extreme in their point, I don't treat the Muslims I see any differently because I don't like their religion. The city in Cali where I live has the highest Iraqi population in the country at the moment and I see them daily. While I don't know anyone personally who is Hindi or Buddhist, I also don't recall them doing anything extreme in the last 50 years to murder humans, including their own countrymen. I would put them in the "peaceful" religion category.
We should be educating our kids, not continue to through around this "church v. state" rhetoric. Learn and understand the Constitution and grasp what our founders intended for us to do.
As for me...this is why I send my kid to a Catholic school. They get their history and their religion. The loss of God and morals and good character in the public schools in order to be politically correct is a factor in their decline.

Posted by: kodonivan | September 23, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Intro to world religions is a great idea, but I don't know what she's talking about because it's already part of the standards and benchmarks. I learned about Islam, Buddha, etc. in social studies. The problem is when she goes straight to: "acknowledge Christianity’s role in schools and society". That's not teaching religion, that's indoctrination. Typical right-wing stuff. Education should be level and balanced, and NO - teaching far-right conservative material as a backlash isn't a valid attempt to "balance out" some perception of a liberal education.

Posted by: mrmotta | September 23, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, the author is arguing for building understanding and for the advancement of religious pluralism and diversity in religious instruction. Is that so hard to comprehend?

Posted by: BeatFarmer | September 24, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

As many of the comments have stated, teaching about religions in US and world history and geography--and under the concept of "natural inclusion" in literature and the arts--is in the social studies standards of virtually every state. The wall of separation referred to in the First Amendment to the US Constitution is preserved by teaching "about" religion rather than teaching religion per se. Major world religions are typically covered in the early grades under world and US holidays, the place of tolerance and religion in civic life throughout the curriculum in civics and government, and information about the beliefs, practices, traditions and history of the 5 major world religions (and many others, including historical faiths such as the Greek and Roman traditions), is taught in world cultures and world history/world geography. The latter courses appear in most states between grades 5 and 7, and again often in grades 9 or 10.
Some high schools have two years of world history, one of which may be honors or Advanced Placement World History. In addition, a course in world religions as an elective is available in some high schools, and has been quite popular. Significant work has gone into developing the curriculum for such courses (both the required and the electives), with input from scholars in world religions, civic groups, the First Amendment Center (see, and curriculum specialists. Notable efforts have been undertaken on teaching about religions. Dr. Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, has been at the forefront of efforts to train teachers and administrators on this issue. The issue may seem highly pertinent now because of the recent rise in Islamophobic utterances, but in fact the discussion and practice of teaching about religions in the US has been ongoing for over twenty years.

Posted by: sldamer | September 24, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

kodonivan, if you "don't recall them [Hindus] doing anything extreme in the last 50 years to murder humans, including their own countrymen," would you care to explain why when the Indian subcontinent became independent, it was divided into Muslim East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Hindu India? There is a lot of Hindu-Muslim violence in that area, and it is now all one-directional. (And none of it compares to the Christian violence against non-Christians throughout history.)

Several years ago a printing company I worked for printed a pamphlet explaning what could and could not be done in the schools about religion. It was perfectly clear what was permitted and what wasn't. I think the main question about religion and the public schools is why the teachers and administrators have such problems understanding the guidelines. Perhaps we should teach remedial reading to these officials.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 25, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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